Indiana considers $20 search fee for public record requests

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A bill that aims to simplify school management by cutting obsolete or duplicate rules in education could also change how public records are handled by all types of Indiana agencies.

The 277-page proposal would allow government entities to charge a search fee for records requests that take longer than two hours to fulfill. After that time, an agency could charge up to $20 an hour and require payment up front.

Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, who is co-authoring the measure, said the bill is designed to reduce data-reporting requirements and streamline school regulations that divert resources from the classroom. But school officials say they don't get many records requests, and public records advocates are taking a mixed view of the proposal.

State law currently prohibits public agencies from charging a fee to search for, examine, or review a record to determine whether or not it can be disclosed. Requesters can only charge for the actual cost of copying a record, which is a minimum of 10 cents per page or 25 cents for color.

Gerry Lanosga, president of the Indiana Coalition for Open Government, said Kruse's proposal could have a chilling effect by discouraging in-depth requests from average citizens who might not be able to afford a higher fee.

"We hope that public officials act with integrity, but we know that sometimes they don't," Lanosga said. "This gives them another tool to send people away."

Supporters of the proposal argue that compensation for search times would help alleviate the burden that large requests place on staff and other resources. They also applaud a provision that would allow a requester to receive records electronically. The search fee would apply, but the requester would not have to pay a copying cost.

Currently, an agency can refuse to provide electronic copies, forcing a requester to pick up records in person and pay a copying fee.

Hoosier State Press Association Executive Director Steve Key said the benefit of getting records in an easy format outweighs the potential negatives of a search fee.

He said the proposal could "discourage fishing expeditions where you just want to go through and find everything" but noted that more specific requests would save time and improve the process for both sides.

Lanosga said he supports adding clarity to the electronic records provision but doesn't understand why it needs to be a bargaining chip. According to Indiana's Access to Public Records Act, providing information is an "integral part of the routine duties of public officials."

"It's not a mere sideshow to what their main responsibility is. It is one of their main responsibilities," he said. "Many of these requirements that agencies see as burdensome are requirements that are absolutely necessary for people to be able to hold government accountable."

Some school officials question the need for the proposal, saying state and federal paperwork places a much bigger burden on districts than public records requests.

"We don't receive very many, maybe one or two a year," said Patricia Gibson, communications director for Marion Community Schools, which has a student population of about 3,600. "I don't think that anyone would describe that as a burden here."

Senate members voted 31-18 in favor of the proposal, sending it to the House education committee for consideration.

House education committee chairman Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, said he supports the legislation but expects it will be fine-tuned as the session progresses.

Indiana's proposal comes as other states are taking steps to make public information requests more affordable.

Michigan legislators recently passed a law that prohibits agencies from charging more than 10 cents a page. They can still charge labor costs to retrieve documents but must provide an itemized explanation of fees and face higher fines for refusing or delaying the disclosure of requested information.

Lawmakers in Maryland recently introduced a bill that would establish a compliance board to handle complaints and cap the fees agencies can charge for public documents. A proposal in Kansas would require all requests that can be fulfilled in an hour or less of staff time and are less than 25 pages to be free.

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